HONG KONG (AP) — Police and protesters engaged in a standoff in Hong Kong’s nightlife district on Thursday after pro-democracy demonstrators urged people to celebrate Halloween by wearing masks in defiance of a government ban on face coverings.
Riot police pushed people back slowly from the Lan Kwai Fong area of bars, clubs and restaurants that is usually abuzz with revelers on the holiday.
Police fired tear gas but it wasn’t immediately clear whether there had been violence between protesters and officers or if anyone had been arrested.
Organizers had called on supporters of the protest movement to take part in a “masquerade” on Thursday to put to the test a recent government ban on masks at public gatherings aimed at quelling the increasingly violent protests now in their fifth month.
Digital fliers circulated online called on people to wear masks depicting Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior officials.
They also said people could wear a mask and dress in red for the march, which was set to begin at a large park and proceed to the Lan Kwai Fong bar and nightclub district.
Face masks have become a hallmark of protesters in Hong Kong, even at peaceful marches, amid fears their identities will be uncovered and spread online, resulting in retribution.
China’s authoritarian Communist government also collects such data to blacklist people from traveling to the mainland or qualifying for government jobs.
Lam introduced a measure to ban masks and face coverings at the start of October, but protesters have largely ignored it and police have not been enforcing it on a large scale.
Police said they didn’t rule out the possibility of violent incidents on Halloween.
The police force said in an online video that anyone refusing to comply with a request to remove their mask can be fined and jailed for six months, though they also said wearing Halloween masks is allowed as long as there is no violence.
Hong Kong’s High Court granted a temporary order banning anyone from spreading online messages inciting or encouraging violence, according to local broadcaster RTHK. The ban, in effect until Nov. 15, specifically targets the LIHKG online forum and encrypted messaging app Telegram, both popular with protesters.
In a separate event, police fired tear gas at protesters gathered at a subway station across the harbor. The demonstrators were marking two months since riot police stormed a subway car and beat passengers with batons and pepper spray in scenes that inflamed tensions.
In Beijing, the ruling Communist Party said it planned to strengthen laws regarding Hong Kong in the name of national security.
The party reaffirms the “one country, two systems” framework under which Hong Kong was handed over from British to Chinese control in 1997, it said in a statement issued at the end of a major meeting of the 202 members of the party’s Central Committee led by Xi, who is also the party chief.
However, it added that in an effort to maintain the territory’s “prosperity and stability,” it would embark on a project to “establish and strengthen a legal system and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security” in Hong Kong.
The document gave no further details and it wasn’t clear whether that indicated an intention to pass new laws in mainland China or in Hong Kong, which has a separate legal system under its own constitution.